Ever since I started traveling extensively two years ago, I’ve become obsessed with documenting every detail, every conversation, and every face I’ve encountered. Since I am usually solo, I have no one else who can recount those memories, so I’ve set out to be my own historian by writing on the napkins I collect in cafes, photographing strangers who smile at me, and taking videos of everything from sunsets to stray cats to drunken bar crawls.
When I look back at all my artifacts, I notice something: Though my trips have been seasoned with unique cuisines, diverse languages, and no two experiences alike, there is one common thread. I fall in love. Every. Single. Time. And I know what you’re thinking: Stef, obviously you fall in love…You’re a Cancer moon. But the thing is, I’ve been described as “emotionally stunted” by most of my friends, I’ve never been in a relationship and I’ve certainly never fallen in love on my own home turf. So why is it so easy for me to fall — nay, tumble, — when I’m abroad?
The first time it happened was during my semester abroad in Buenos Aires. First I fell in love with the country and then with someone in the program. It was an almost immediate reaction, and we were a couple after just a few weeks. Before most people had made a solid group of friends, we were FaceTiming each other’s families, going out on dates, and changing our class schedules so that they aligned. We spent all of our time in the university building huddled in our own corner and all of our time outside walking the streets with a bottle of wine in hand. The program was small and a lot less rigorous than what we were used to, so when we made the same group of friends, we all went out constantly. In other words, we had all the time in the world to fall in love, but we did it fast.
Studying abroad is a going-back-to-square-one experience, and both my sudden boyfriend and I were forced to reinvent ourselves in this very new environment. Between living with a family who didn’t speak English, navigating a new bus system, and even finding the grocery store, everything felt more manageable alongside someone navigating the same challenges. In retrospect, I wonder if we overestimated how much our codependence undermined the personal growth we came for.
How many times have I met someone for a few hours in a foreign city and replayed our short time together over and over in my head, convincing myself it was the work of a higher romantic power rather than a chance encounter?
I spoke with Arthur Aron, Ph.D., research professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who has extensively studied “interpersonal closeness” as a way to make meaningful connections with others. When I asked him why we might fall in love more readily when we’re abroad, he asked me to think about what kinds of people we feel romantically tied to when we’re traveling. “Are they from the same country as you? Do they have a similar background?” He went on to explain that we’re more likely to be attracted to people who we sense are similar to us. I would argue that my study-abroad romance grounded me. It was a way to orient myself with the familiar (someone who spoke my language, hailed from the same city, and attended the same university) in an otherwise disorienting environment.
And besides, everything feels romantic when it’s exotic. How many times have I met someone for a few hours in a foreign city and replayed our short time together over and over in my head, convincing myself it was the work of a higher romantic power rather than a chance encounter? There was the hostel worker who I spent two weeks with in Prague and who nearly convinced me to quit my job and stay in town. There was the bartender in Hvar who I met one drunken night while sitting on a pier. I never got his name or number, so I came back to the island the next weekend hoping (and failing) to find him again. And of course, there was the man I sat next to on my flight to Spain. We drank wine during our layover and promised to meet in the same spot in 10 years.
The truth is, doing something as simple (and overpriced) as drinking in an airport feels like a scene straight out of a rom-com when you’re traveling. On this subject, Aron directed me to an old and often replicated experiment. In it, an attractive woman stands alone on a scary suspension bridge and asks men who pass by to fill out a questionnaire. She then asks them to partake in a creative exercise that includes drawing a picture of some sort and tells them that they can call her with any questions about the study. This experiment was also conducted on a regular, “non-scary” bridge.
The men were more likely to call the women, as well as draw pictures that were romantic or sexual in nature, if this interaction took place on the scary bridge due to what Aron calls physiological stimulation. Basically, we’re more likely to feel attracted to someone when we’re “stirred up,” as he put it. We tend to misinterpret the influx of emotions — in this case, fear — as romantic attraction.
But at some point, we come to our senses. The study-abroad boyfriend and I broke up as soon as we got back to the U.S. Once I was settled back into my normal, everyday routine, my feelings dissipated. It ended as quickly as it began.
The next summer, I went on what was supposed to be year-long, solo backpacking trip through Central America. Two months in, I met a Danish man while sailing from Colombia to Panama. I proceeded to reroute my entire trip to follow him on his, thus cutting my own trip short by eight months, and entered a year-long long-distance relationship. I was as positive then that we were soulmates as I am now that Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson aren’t.
Fast-forward a year and I had spent thousands of dollars on plane tickets visiting him in Denmark and hundreds of hours on video chat trying to maintain some semblance of a normal relationship. It quickly took over my entire life. I worked extra jobs to pay for my flights and spent all my free time researching ways for us to be physically together— spousal visas, work study, gap years, you name it. And worse, we were constantly fighting because, in reality, we were waging a battle that couldn’t be won. We were each other’s only ally, but were basically strangers who felt increasingly distant.
I had fallen in love with the best in someone, and I had to learn and accept the worst later on.
The differences that feel so minor when you first meet someone while traveling — from your political views to your favorite movie genre — grow exponentially the more you get to know each other in the real world (that is, life when you’re not traveling). I soon realized that I was dating someone who had completely different values than me. We simply weren’t the same people we were when we first met, a time when we weren’t bogged down by the stressors of everyday life. I had fallen in love with the best in someone, and I had to learn and accept the worst later on.
In the end, the only thing that kept us going was our ability to reminisce on the good times, which at that point, were months behind us. We were trapped in the past, miserable in the present, and had no real future to look forward to. We broke up and my heart broke, mostly because I couldn’t reconcile how intoxicated with love we were those first few weeks with how much despair we felt in the end.
Reading back through my journal entries and napkin notes, what sticks out the most is how happy I was at the time of each of these encounters. In every single case, I was both the best version of myself and incredibly vulnerable, a perfect combination for opening myself up to romance (and heartbreak). I always attributed my flings to people from foreign countries being better lovers or me being more attractive when I’m tan, but none of that is true. When you do the things that make you happy — in my case, travel — you become less jaded and distracted by what’s around you. You become attuned and appreciative to the things and people right in front of you.
Ultimately, I don’t regret falling in love, but I do regret the rash decisions I’ve justified in the name of love — changing travel plans, maxing out my credit card, and bailing on friends who planned to meet up with me. My advice to the girl who scribbles love letters on the back of her Eurail pass? Learn from your mistakes. Finally go on that year-long trip — your year-long trip — that you’ve been planning for three years. Stop for nobody, not even the person you are 100 percent positive is your soulmate. Get to to your destination first. Then decide who’s worth going back for.